Cert 15 119mins Stars 5

The bets are off on who will win a royal game of snobbery, seduction and survival in this scabrously funny and multi-award winning historical drama.

Framed as a barking mad fairytale and set in the cruel court of Britain’s Queen Anne in the early 1700s, it sees two women jockey for position as the monarch’s right hand.

Rachel Weisz plays the Duchess of Marlborough who begins in pole position as the power behind the throne, pushing the gout afflicted monarch about in a wheelchair.

Olivia Colman’s sickly royal passenger is an infantilised monster, damaged from child rearing, rapped in her palace and wielding immense power without any real understanding of the human consequences.

Meanwhile Emma Stone’s aristocratic Abigail is forced to work as a scullery maid, where she plots her return to high society and becomes a rival of her cousin, the Duchess.

Nicholas Hoult’s parliamentarian is pointedly referred to as the Leader of the Opposition, underlining how the women are navigating a male dominated society.

As you’d expect from a cast of this quality. the performances are as tremendous, fuelled by brutal dialogue which is alternately eye-wateringly coarse or sharply witty.

Filming on location at the suitably grand stately home of Hatfield House in Hertfordshire lends authenticity while the cast are decorated with the extravagant attire supplied by British Oscar-winning costume designer, Sandy Powell.

This is another grotesque theatre of the absurd from from Greek director, Yorgos Lanthimos, and though arguably his most mainstream film yet, it is by no means mundane. It crackles with urgency, humour, tension and desperation as it becomes ever more nightmarish.

Yet his ability to offer a degree of sympathy to his all characters even as he condemns them to self-awareness is a rare gift in filmmaking. 

This is another extraordinary experience from a unique storyteller and the first great film of 2019.

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